I didn’t intend to write this article. It merely “jumped out” at me while perusing the popular scientific literature in the Carlson basement.

I always keep an eye open for climate change articles and, in the past years or so, have been extremely pleased by the abundance of items addressing the issue with an inspiring level of optimism and enthusiasm. Yet, this month, I was surprised to find a great deal of attention focused on the undesirable aspects of the technology often proposed as solutions to climate change.

The recent “golden age” for climate change awareness and action occurred in the months following the release of former Vice President Al Gore’s highly influential film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the fourth report of the International Panel on Climate Change. Together, these works helped convince the general public of the undeniable problem of climate change and catapulted the issue into its current status as an A-list political item.

Yet, like a new romance, the initial period of excitement gives way to a fuller reality – and one that isn’t always so pretty. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), for example, have been a guilt-free rallying point for climate change activists in recent years. These swirly little tubes use only a quarter of the energy of incandescent bulbs of the same brightness and last 10 times longer, on average.

In October’s issue of Scientific American, a leading popular science journal, an article entitled “Toxic Bulbs” discussed the previously unmentioned downside of these beloved devices. Each CFL contains about five milligrams of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin required for their efficient function. Scientific American reports that over two billion will be sold this year alone, adding an additional 10 metric tons of mercury per year to the consumer waste stream. Currently, there is no mechanism in place to handle this additional mercury.

The list continues. An article in Nature about increasing fuel efficiency standards mentions enhanced danger to auto drivers who are more likely to suffer fatal injury in lighter, fuel-efficient vehicles. In September’s edition of the Chemical and Engineering News, an article titled “Renewable Fuels Faces Bumpy Road” questions another favorite of climate change activists – ethanolic biofuels.

Scientific American ran another article, titled “Oceangoing Iron: A venture to profit from a CO2-eating algae bloom riles scientists.” The article discusses the for-profit enterprise Planktos, which hopes to earn a fortune by selling carbon credits to businesses that can’t meet emission caps. And how does Planktos build up excess carbon credit? By seeding the ocean with iron dust that will stimulate the unprecedented growth of nation-sized algal blooms whose growth would sequester CO2 from the air. What’s shocking is that this enterprise is entirely legal, despite appearing to be a clear case of environmental transgression. What’s upsetting is that, inevitably, climate change is an entrepreneurial opportunity like any other – while it may stimulate innovation and encourage economic growth, it also may fatten the pockets of investors with less-than-ethical intent. And while these problems aren’t new, they are getting more press than I’ve ever seen.

These unfortunate realizations serve as a sobering reminder of the complexity of real-life problems. And while the recent surge of optimism about climate change solutions seems to be cooling down, society at large is moving toward a more complete understanding of the problem, which, though not as gratifying as the honeymoon, is an advantageous position for the long haul.

Lotito is a KEY scholar.



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